Valmiki: Varun Tej, Harish Shankar on Telugu remake of Jigarthanda, and why 'cinema is the hero' of their film
Valmiki is the Telugu remake of Karthik Subbaraj’s acclaimed Tamil film, Jigarthanda, which focuses on an aspiring director who goes on to make a film on a gangster, and how the process changes both their lives.
From playing a silent guy in his debut film Mukunda, to the gangster Gaddhalakonda Ganesh in Valmiki, Varun Tej has come a long way in terms of he is perceived on screen. Over the years, he has built a lover boy image, thanks to the success of films like Fidaa and Tholiprema, and a brooding-and-intense youngster in Kanche and Antariksham; however, his role in Valmiki is on a different spectrum. Ask him how he has transformed himself over the years, Varun Tej says, “I think I have changed a lot over the years. Initially, I used to be very conscious about acting in front of hundreds of people on a film set, but now, I’m a lot more comfortable with it. I don’t think I have come to the opposite end of the journey yet, but every role I’ve played so far has helped me to show what I’m capable of doing. And when people watch Valmiki, I hope they walk away with the feeling that I can fit into any sort of character.”
Valmiki is the Telugu remake of Karthik Subbaraj’s acclaimed Tamil film, Jigarthanda, which focuses on an aspiring director who goes on to make a film on a gangster, and how the process changes both their lives. The film went on to achieve cult status and propelled Karthik Subbaraj’s career as one of the most exciting new voices in Tamil cinema. Bobby Simha, who played the gangster Assault Sethu, won a National award for his performance, and Siddharth won laurels for his lead character as an aspiring director. On the contrary, Harish Shankar has over the years built his reputation for making commercial films in Telugu with the likes of Gabbar Singh (remake of Dabangg), Mirapakay, and Duvvada Jagannadham. When the film was first announced, a director like him making the Telugu version of Jigarthanda was in itself a big surprise. Yet, Harish Shankar confesses that Jigarthanda is his kind of film. “When I first saw the original version, I was bowled over by how well Karthik Subbaraj had struck a right balance between heroism and comedy. And it’s something that I’ve always liked to do. I’ve always wanted to make content-rich films, but after my first film Shock didn’t do well at the box-office, I’ve largely stuck to making commercial films. After all these years, Valmiki has given me a chance to do something different,” Harish says.
Incidentally, when Harish Shankar first met Varun Tej, he pitched him a love story, titled Daagudu Moothalu, which he had been wanting to make post Duvvada Jagannadham’s release. “I was surprised that Harish was pitching a love story because he’s known for making action dramas. When I evinced my interest to be part of his kind of films, that’s when he suggested that we work on the remake of Jigarthanda,” Varun recalls. It didn’t take him long to say yes to the idea because, he says, for the past couple of years he has been planning to step away from being stereotyped as an actor who does mostly romantic dramas. “I didn’t want people to put me in a box. Besides, when I play roles like those in Fidaa or Tholiprema, there are boundaries about what I can or can’t do, but when it came to playing a bad guy in Valmiki, there were no such boundaries. It was so much fun,” the actor says, adding, “I didn’t think much about how playing a role like this would have an impact on my career since I’ve been playing lead roles since my debut. When I spoke to my uncle, Chiranjeevi garu, about playing a role with a lot of negative shades, he encouraged me to take it up. His approval meant a lot to me because I’ve always looked up to him for guidance and also, he’s my inspiration.”
Prior to the shoot, the actor and the director worked with each other for nearly six months during which the character of Gaddhalakonda Ganesh began to take shape. “One of the major changes that we have done to this character, originally essayed by Bobby Simha, was give him a backstory to justify why he had become like that. In the original version, Bobby Simha didn’t have a baggage to play that role and he was terrific. But Harish opined that since I had been playing lead roles in the past few years, giving a strong backstory will make it easier for the audience to accept me playing a bad guy. That’s how Pooja Hegde came onboard and she has an interesting role to play in the second half of the story. All the details about my look, the dialect I’m going to use, and body language emerged from the long conversations I have had with Harish during this phase. The makeover was essential because we wanted the audience to see me as Ganesh throughout,” Varun Tej says. The rapport that the two of them struck was crucial in the whole process, Harish admits. “The more I got to know him, the more I realised that we were on the same page. The most exciting thing about Valmiki is Varun playing the bad guy. That in itself became the film’s USP. The way he dedicated himself to transform into the character was amazing to witness. I’m sure that people will be surprised with the new dimension that Varun Tej has showcased in this film,” the director adds.
The film itself is an ode to the impact that cinema has on people’s lives. “This is a film about how the making of a film brings a huge change in the character’s life. In a way, I would say that cinema is the hero of our film. Over the years, films have been used as a punching bag and the general discourse has been on the negative impact that cinema has on the society. Through Valmiki, we have tried to change that perception,” Harish Shankar confesses.
Earlier this year, Varun Tej scored a blockbuster with F2, which also had Venkatesh, Tamannaah, and Mehreen in lead roles. “A lot of factors contributed to the film’s enormous success. For an actor like me, it’s important that my films do well because it helps me to tell interesting stories. I was quite excited about Antariksham; however, we couldn’t pull it off the way we had envisioned and I agree that we failed to do justice to the story. It was a big lesson for me. Even today, I’ve a spacesuit (which I used in Antariksham) in my office. Every time I hear a new script, I look at that spacesuit once before taking a decision,” Varun smiles. “I’m very confident about Valmiki. I have always believed that I can pull off a role like this, and now, it’s up to the audience to decide whether my gut feeling was right or not.”
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